Animal life as you've never seen it before!
Recently I had the privilege of reviewing What Killed the Mega Beasts?, a Discovery Channel documentary about the demise of giant mammals. That was a good documentary, but The Shape of Life is a great one. I might not be tempted to pop Mega Beasts into the old DVD tray for fun, yet I could find the time for The Shape of Life! The underwater scenes are particularly tranquil. Pop in an Enya CD and float away with the spectacular images of crawling anemones, pulsing jellyfish, and psychedelic octopi. Whoa.
Facts of the Case
This boxed set details the evolution of all forms of life on earth. Sounds ambitious, and it is. Scientists have arrived at a somewhat stable view of who evolved into what and when. It all begins with the humble sponge. Yes, that spongy clump of cells you use to scrub out your pits is your greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat-grandthingy. You haven't lived until you see a sponge inhaling and exhaling clouds of phosphorescent trace chemicals. It is amazing, and I mean that in all honesty.
From there we travel through the remaining kingdoms of animals, gaining fascinating perspective on how movement, thought, sex, and other things we take for granted came into being. If it wasn't for the brilliant innovation of a flatworm long ago on the ocean floor, we may never have had sex. Freaky. And that is only the beginning of the amazing stuff covered in this set.
After origins, movement, and hunting, The Shape of Life really digs in. Episode four covers the instantaneous proliferation of various forms of life. Episode five shows how arthropods took over land and sky, episode six depicts the struggle for survival, and episode seven reveals so much freaky stuff about starfish that I haven't digested it all. It is only in episode eight that we explore mammals and humans. By then, as a human you may feel somewhat different about yourself. It's all about the spinal cord.
I didn't much like the menus. The text looks blurry and the rollovers are made with beginning-level Photoshop filters. There are no extras. The prosecution rests.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Everything else was amazing. These documentarians are in top form. I cannot fathom the time, money, and effort that went into creating these movies. Not since The Matrix has my mind been bent so far. As T-Bird says in The Crow, this is the really real world!
Let's start with the image itself. There is no grain, which leads me to suspect that this was shot digitally. There are occasional compression artifacts: if you pause the image, you may see vertical bands of pixels. That's my sole complaint with the image. The colors are as vibrant as you could imagine, given that we are dealing with real life. The blacks are deep, the cinematography is superb, and the detail is razor sharp. Not only do they capture exotic animal life, the shots are framed so delicately that many times I felt I was watching a living expressionist painting. For some reason, seeing the flowing tentacles of a jellyfish fill the screen grants dramatic weight. To give you an idea, I've had my home theater set up for over a year, and this was the first DVD that inspired me to tweak the gamma, color balance, etcetera, just to see the image better. I have never seen an equivalent image in a transfer shot for television.
But it isn't all real life. There are many computer animated scenes that bring long-dead creatures back into existence. These animated scenes blend in seamlessly with the live footage. There are moments of historical reenactment that are absolutely convincing. There are also neat transitions using CGI maps over the image. The effects reinforce the thrust of the narrative and punch up the energy level.
In many documentaries, the narrator and scientists are dull. Not so here. Peter Coyote narrates, and his voice is never monotone or sleepy. Nor does he bring you out of the flow of the documentary. The scientists are interviewed in natural environments, and seem relaxed and engaged. There are some staged shots of the scientists, but they are believably handled.
The audio is not spectacular, but is very well mixed. We don't listen for intense surround action from a documentary. The music is catchy and unobtrusive, the dialogue is clear, and the sound effects work well.
There are no extras on the DVDs, but the website is wonderful. It looks great and is informative to boot.
All of the above only helps to serve an ambitious, well-executed look into our past. The breadth and variety of life captured is amazing. This documentary has it all: sieges, wars, love, aggression, community, subterfuge, and peace. One subplot deals with Australian flatworms that were introduced to Scotland. These gray, slimy flatworms are slowly but surely annihilating the earthworm population, making the fields useless for farming. In fact, this introduction might lead to a complete environmental overhaul of Scotland, rendering it uninhabitable. Talk about a crisis, and it is happening beneath the very feet of the Scots. Another subplot involves miles of cnidarians holding hands, feeding one another. Once a year, they simultaneously squirt sperms and eggs into the water. Whoa.
The cameramen don't shy away from the subject at hand. What better way to depict parasitic behavior than to film a leech latching on to a foot and feeding itself on clouds of human blood, only to fall away too engorged to move? Or how about seeing a 60 foot tapeworm inside an intestine? Can you dig it?
There is ethereal beauty as well. One evening I looped a particularly beautiful underwater spectacle and put on some tunes. It was as relaxing as a trip to the spa. I cannot believe how many colors an octopus can turn.
Not only is the picture amazing and the craftsmanship top-notch, the story is solid as well. One of my complaints with What Killed the Mega Beasts? was that the returns from commercial were redundant. In The Shape of Life, information is rarely repeated, and when they do returns from commercial it is barely noticeable. The story is always moving forward, and was so engaging that I resented the "spoilers" on the back of the box. If Jaws changed the way you felt about the beach, The Shape of Life might change how you feel about the ground beneath your feet. Don't worry, if it gets to be too much, just run your hand down your back. Feel those vertebrae? You're good.
Amazing, amazing, amazing. If you even suspect that a documentary about life on Earth could be your thing, grab this set and prepare to be wowed. They decipher traces of ancient Platyhelminthe movement in the California mountains, on rocks that are over half a billion years old. Whoa.
Why are you all sitting in my courtroom? Go! Make more documentaries! This truly is animal life as you've never seen it before.
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